I don’t watch too many German language films with sub-titles, even though there was a long ago time when I was very keen on studying German. Undoubtedly, though, The Lives of Others, which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film is the best German movie I’ve ever seen.
The film is written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and stars Ulrich Muhe, Martine Gedeck and Sebastian Koch. The setting is East Germany in the 1980s, a time of severe state repression. A writer called Dreyman is having a relationship with an actress, Christa-Marie Sieland. A secret service man from the dreaded Stasi, Wiesler, is told by a superior to head a surveillance operation focused on Dreyman’s flat. The reason is that a minister is besotted with Christa-Marie and wants to find evidence of treachery on the part of his rival, Dreyman.
As Wiesler conducts the operation, he becomes fascinated by Dreyman and Christa-Marie, and his unquestioning obedience to the totalitarian regime begins to falter. He tries to warn Christa-Marie, but she finds herself trapped, and a series of cheerless events lead to tragedy. The ending of the film is, however, unexpectedly uplifting.
The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman, has long been my favourite film about surveillance, but this one runs it close. Muhe’s nuanced performance is excellent, and the claustrophobic feeling of a state-controlled society is conveyed with great power. One would like to think nothing similar could ever happen in Britain, but our surveillance society is developing apace, so who knows? This is a truly thought-provoking film, and it deserves the acclaim it has received.